[Sir Christopher Chope in the Chair]
I beg to move,
That this House has considered access to broadband services.
It is good to see you in your place, Sir Christopher, and I am delighted to see so many colleagues from across the House with an interest in broadband. It is close to our hearts in Stirling. I find myself saying quite a lot that in Stirling we have the best broadband in the UK, and we also have the worst broadband in the UK, which I think a number of us, representing urban and rural areas, will have in common. I represent an area that is about as big as Luxembourg, with a huge rural territory, and I am focused on rural broadband provision.
In St Ninians in Stirling, I have fantastic full-fibre broadband. I have nothing to complain about personally, but I am deeply concerned for an awful lot of people I represent who I fear are being left behind by Government policy. I say that mentioning two Governments: the Scottish Government and the UK Government. Telecoms is reserved, but the Scottish Government have been active in this field. I want to reach out to colleagues today and say, “Let’s identify the problems together and work together.” We are going to need to work with the private sector, the state sector and community groups to bridge the gap that we see, because we cannot leave anyone behind.
I will do a brief stocktake of where we are, identify some of the problems and suggest a few solutions, because the people we all serve want to see an outcome to today’s debate, not just a bumping of gums. I am particularly grateful to the House of Commons Library and the Chamber Engagement Team, who have put together some very thorough briefs on this issue. I have had a number of briefings from stakeholders. I have done site visits with Lothian Broadband, Virgin Media and National Broadband. I am also grateful to Paul Anderson in my team for pulling it all together and explaining to me what some of the big words mean, because there is a technical aspect to all this that few of us are across.
I would like to start on a note of agreement. I think we can agree that broadband is not a “nice to have”; it is a necessity. It is the fourth utility. Covid has accelerated everything—it was the great accelerator. It has accelerated trends that were already there, such as people shopping online, doing their banking online and accessing Government services online, particularly as the Post Office seems to be more interested in closing branches than providing services. Banks are closing their branches with gay abandon, particularly in rural areas. That makes broadband more important for rural areas, and it makes joining up rural areas to good broadband even more imperative than it is for urban areas.
There is a moral aspect to all this. People working from home need good broadband. As we see more and more people expected to work from home—and I am fully in favour of that, for all sorts of positive reasons, such as work-life balance and fewer carbon emissions—people in rural areas are being excluded from that potential benefit, because they do not have the broadband they need.
There is a social aspect to this, not least in terms of the substantial amount of public money—Scottish and UK—that is going towards it and the substantial amount of private money that has been invested, for which companies can legitimately expect an honest return. Joining up rural areas is important, and we need to see a greater focus on it. Broadband will revitalise rural areas at a point when, as we are recovering from covid, so many other factors are militating against them. I have talked about the cutting back of services in other areas. That makes broadband even more important.
There has been no shortage of Government activity. I would like to think I have a good relationship with the Minister on this and many other points, and I want to find solutions here. There is a substantial amount of public money being put towards this. Telecoms is reserved to the UK Government, whose Project Gigabit programme is £5 billion of public expenditure. Its objective is for 80% of the network to be built privately, with a subsidy for harder-to-reach areas. I agree with that focus. Gigabit broadband is to be available to 85% of the UK by 2025 and to the rest by 2030. The cynic in me says that those sound like rather round numbers, and we always need to be conscious of the sound of deadlines whooshing past us. I represent a big chunk of the 15%, and I want to see faster activity and a better focus on rural areas, for the reasons I have outlined.
The Scottish Government, for their part, have recognised that there are gaps in provision. As we have a third of the UK land mass, we have a lot of rural areas to cover, as well as the islands. The Scottish Government created the Reaching 100%—R100—scheme and put £600 million behind it, as well as a £49.5 million UK Government spend. We are working together on this, and I want to see more of that. I want us to work together to target the areas that need it, although I fear that is not quite where we are at the moment.
We have rightly seen significant private sector engagement, and the Scottish National Investment Bank has been helping with access to patient capital. I have seen that locally in Cowie, Plean and Fallin to the east of Stirling. The eastern villages are having full-fibre broadband rolled out, with the help of Scottish National Investment Bank money, and that is very welcome. But in the spirit of constructive engagement, which I hope I have demonstrated, we all need to ask whether those schemes are all actively delivering and whether there is sufficient co-ordination across the private sector to avoid needless duplication in the roll-out of broadband.
In January 2022, the Public Accounts Committee found that the gigabit roll-out “risks perpetuating digital inequality”. House of Commons Library research shows that only 48.7% of premises in Stirling have gigabit availability, despite Stirling’s having, as I say, some of the best broadband that exists. We have download speeds of 43.9 megabits per second. That is less than half the UK average of 111.6 megabits per second.
We need to do better, and I have a few suggestions. The focus of both the UK and Scottish schemes has been on full-fibre connectivity. I agree with that—that is the gold standard—but it does mean the physical infrastructure is that much more expensive, particularly in rural areas. I make a plea for alternative means of delivery to be considered. Satellite and 4G broadband may well be a way of massively increasing provision—perhaps not as far as full fibre might, but if full fibre is several decades away, as I fear it may be for some places, there are solutions that exist right now that could take over. The broadband provided by alternative solutions might not be as effective, but it will be transformative for those areas now.
National Broadband, with which I had a useful meeting and which provided me with a lot of good information, has calculated that by using alternative technologies, it could supply all 435,000 premises UK-wide without access to broadband with a faster connection for just 3% of the budget of Project Gigabit. That strikes me as a transformative offer for an awful lot of rural areas, and we need to look at it seriously.
I also suggest that, as well as better focus of the subsidy and where it goes, we need better co-ordination of the regulatory aspect of how the private sector companies involved are rolling these schemes out, because there are instances where we have not seen the co-ordination that we need. I am thinking particularly about local authorities with lots of different rules and permitted development rights not being quite tracked through the way they need to be, creating a picture that is more complicated than it needs to be, but also private sector companies not talking to competitors, as they would see them.
We also need to look at what is being delivered. If we have reached the point where one player in the market can make a virtue of delivering the speeds people are paying for, that hints that an awful lot of people are not getting the speeds they are paying for and, indeed, that the taxpayer has subsidised. We need much more active regulation of the roll-out of Project Gigabit and R100, as well as the return on investment that companies are legitimately able to make. They should make a return, but I do think we need to see greater consequences for non-delivery of expectations.
A lot of solutions exist right now. I represent an awful lot of people in rural Scotland who want the same services that everybody else has, and we need to do better on their behalf. I think that applies to an awful lot of our constituencies, and I will work with anybody to help serve them.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for securing this important debate. I found his speech incredibly constructive.
Getting better broadband connections for my constituents in Meon Valley has been a key part of my work in Parliament. It is a largely rural constituency, and when I was elected, part of it was in the bottom 5% in the country for broadband speed. I am pleased that the gigabit voucher scheme is bringing better connections to thousands of people. I have spent hours on queries with Openreach and Building Digital UK, and supporting groups working on community fibre programmes. I am very grateful to both organisations and to Hampshire County Council for helping me to achieve results. Villages such as Upham, Owslebury, Cheriton, Kilmeston and Bramdean, which have been in the bottom 5%, will now be near the top of the table.
Other constituents are now looking towards CityFibre, under the recently announced procurement, and I will be looking to BDUK to provide greater clarity on when that will start. This is an example of Government enabling vital infrastructure in my constituency and I welcome it wholeheartedly.
The covid pandemic highlighted very quickly the crucial role of broadband in Meon Valley and other rural areas. I have a number of constituents who worked in senior positions on the covid response and found it difficult to work remotely because of the slow speeds, so I was grateful to Openreach for its quick response to my request for help. For example, one NHS consultant who was working on the pandemic could only upload his slides and information over several hours, normally overnight. Openreach helped to sort that quickly, although his son had to dig the trench to enable the internet cable to be brought to their property.
People who were working at home with children trying to access schooling was another issue, and it showed our dependency on the internet for information. The future of education and work is very dependent on our access to the internet, and we will have to find ways to keep up with technology so that our country can build a successful economy.
However, we must be careful that we do not build barriers to some people. I have many older constituents in Meon Valley who are concerned about being left behind. We see banks closing because so many people now bank online, and GP appointment systems are becoming increasingly web-based, as is ticketing for events and travel.
I am grateful to Age UK for its work in this area. It has surveyed people aged over 65 about access to public services online, and its findings are troubling, with 22% saying that they do not use the internet at all. Many of those who do are limited in what they do online. Many read about scams and hacking, and so are too frightened to use the internet. Few are engaged in complex tasks, and older people may not be experienced in navigating websites, which often differ in their form and function.
I would be grateful to hear from the Minister what plans we have to help those who are not computer literate, because a lack of computer literacy is increasingly isolating for a large part of my community. Is there a fund that people can access for training? We are spending huge amounts of money building the infrastructure, but can people access it?
If there are areas where there remain challenges to deploying fixed broadband links, we need to be ready to move quickly to bring alternative wireless solutions to people who need them, especially those in remote areas, as the hon. Member for Stirling articulated. Better mobile and data connectivity through 5G is vital for everyone, whether they live in the countryside or in a town. Connectivity deserves the same priority as physical forms of infrastructure. Businesses such as the many farms in my constituency, public services such as education and health, as well as constituents, all depend on the availability of good access to mobile data and telephony.
High-speed connections are now part of our vital infrastructure and the Government must make sure that we continue to improve our connectivity by using the latest technology. Combined with digital confidence, that will have a major impact on our growing economy.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher.
If I may, I will tell a little story about Hull. Hull is the only place in the whole of the United Kingdom that has white telephone boxes. They go back a very long time, to when British Telecom was introduced and the rest of the country ended up with the red telephone boxes that we are all familiar with. In Hull, there was a company called Kingston Communications, which was owned by the council. When all the rest of the country was going to have red telephone boxes with British Telecom, it decided that we would keep our own white boxes.
The legacy of that, aside from the white telephone boxes themselves, was that up until a few years ago—as I was very proud to tell everybody—there was more full-fibre high-speed broadband under the streets of Hull than under any other city in the country. That is a pretty impressive fact. I think that we have around 97% or 98% access to full-fibre high-speed broadband within the boundaries of the city of Hull, so people might wonder why I would attend a debate all about access to broadband.
We have that legacy of full-fibre broadband, but because of our other legacy of not having BT or Openreach, all the infrastructure within the city of Hull is owned by the new company KCOM, which was originally Kingston Communications. As a result, we have never had an awful lot of competition in Hull. That was great when people phoned up and tried to flog us broadband, because we could say, “Check my postcode. Don’t bother. You’re not going to be able to provide it to me.”
However, we now have a problem where new companies are coming into the city. On the one hand, it is positive that there is competition; on the other hand, those companies are coming into the city and wanting to put their own broadband poles up. One company, MS3, came along and said, “We want to put our own broadband poles up right across the city,” even though there is existing full-fibre broadband. Another company, Connexin, then said, “We want to come and put up our full-fibre broadband poles and offer a service to the city,” so it is coming along and putting its poles up as well. Then another company, Grain, came along and said, “We would like to offer full-fibre broadband to the people of Hull, so we’re going to have a go at digging up the roads.” We have a situation right now in Hull where three broadband companies, all at the same time, are either digging up the streets or sticking their own poles up, all wanting to be an alternative provider to the existing Kingston Communications.
Residents are incredibly upset. They are saying, “Hang on a minute. You’re digging up my road. Only last month, another company was digging up my road and sticking its poles in.” On some streets, it is not uncommon to see the poles of two different broadband providers, and in some cases even three, all trying to offer the same product. Some poles have been put in ridiculous places, and the building works have blocked people’s driveways and their access to their properties, causing a huge amount of upset.
On one lovely estate in my constituency, which I refer to as the Jenny Brough estate and which was only built in 1997, residents were told, “Any infrastructure you have on the estate must be underground,” so there were no poles. They woke up, however, to find that someone was sticking poles along their street without consultation. I am pleased to say that the company involved will now to talk to residents, but crucially—this is what I want to press with the Minister—residents have no right to refuse the poles, even if there are existing poles and everybody on the street says they do not want them. I am sure colleagues will appreciate that if someone tries to get permission for a dropped kerb for their property, they have to jump through hundreds of hoops, yet any broadband provider can come along and say, “We want to provide broadband, so we want to put our pole there—and by the way, council, we’re giving you statutory notice and we’re going to go ahead and do it.” There is no way for anybody to tell it that it cannot.
I have been working closely with my right hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull North (Dame Diana Johnson) and my hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull East (Karl Turner) on this. Telegraph poles erected by designated communications network operators for the expansion of fibre to the premises do not need planning permission under the Electronic Communications Code (Conditions and Restrictions) 2003 and the Town and Country Planning (General Permitted Development) (England) Order 2015. The only requirement on the operator is to provide 28 days’ notice to the local planning authority. It does not need permission; it just needs to give notice. There is no requirement to consider, as an alternative, under-street cabling. The local planning authority can only make suggestions to the telecoms company; the company is under no obligation to follow them. Even if the local planning authority said, “Actually, we’d much rather you went underground,” the provider could say, “Well, you might, but we’re going to do it this way because it’s cheaper.”
There is a cabinet siting and pole siting code of practice, which states that operators should place a site notice where new poles are to be installed, but it is not legislation; it is not statutory. The code states that the notice should indicate
“to nearby residents the intention to install a pole, and the proposed location,”
but ultimately, there is currently no way for any member of the public to challenge legally where that pole is going. Even if it is at the end of their driveway, they have no legal right to challenge where it is going. It is all a voluntary code of conduct and is all meant to be done in negotiation.
In the case of digging up the streets, telecoms companies are statutory undertakers for the purpose of the New Roads and Street Works Act 1991. That means that, like utility companies, they have a general right to install infrastructure on or under public roads and to carry out associated street works. They are also required to notify the relevant highway authority—but, again, they do not need consent. They can come along and dig up the road, and they do not need consent; they just need to have told the local planning authority that they are going to do it.
As I said, in Hull and in Hessle, which is also part of my constituency, we have all these providers wanting to put their own poles up. One of the providers has said, “Look, if we are looking at a street and there are already two poles up, we’re not going to go and put a third one up,” but that does not stop another company coming along and saying, “Well, actually, we want to do it. We’re going to stick our own pole up as well.”
I want the Minister to intervene. Why on earth is Ofcom not forcing these companies to come to some kind of sharing agreement or arrangement on infrastructure? A fair market price could be agreed by the regulator, which could say, “Actually, I’m sorry, but you cannot be the third provider to dig up the same street and stick your own poles all along it, blocking access for wheelchairs and prams, and making the road bumpy and difficult for elderly people to access.” Why can Ofcom not tell them to get together and ask them, “What’s a fair market price? Let’s agree that and sort it out. We can have the competition”—good, we do not want a monopoly—“but don’t, each of you, individually, stick your poles up all down the street”?
Ofcom has been completely reluctant to intervene. It says that this is not a matter for it and that it is fair competition. Ultimately, however, the consumer is paying for all these poles going up. They are the ones who are being charged higher broadband prices to pay for all this unwanted infrastructure. I would like the Minister to join me in calling on Ofcom to look at this issue more seriously and at the legacy situation in Hull. It needs to force these companies to work together and agree a fair market price, and it needs to stop each of them, individually, digging up the same road.
I would also like to meet the Minister to discuss what we can do to limit the number of companies coming around to dig up the streets, causing major inconvenience and blocking our pavements. As the law stands, it seems that absolutely no one has the ability to stop them.
It is an honour to serve under your chairmanship this afternoon, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), who made an excellent introductory speech, and others who have spoken in the debate so far. In my economics O-level, at the time of the privatisation of BT, I did an essay on Kingston Communications, so this is bringing it all back.
As the hon. Member said, broadband has become something of a necessity in the modern world, in terms of connecting people to the broader economy and, indeed, in terms of safety. I will obviously focus on my rural communities in the south lakes and Eden—let us call it greater Westmorland—and not being able to access decent-quality, fast broadband makes people literally unsafe in terms of their access to emergency services. It also has an impact on their ability to perform in and contribute to the local economy. I have often said that if someone could live in Westmorland and make a living there, they just would, because it is a wonderful place to live. Over time—this includes today, of course—that has become difficult to do. Having said that, with the rise of access to better broadband, people can increasingly make a living working from home. Broadband is one way in which we can make rural communities genuinely thrive, make them economically active and see the return of younger families, with children going to our schools to keep them open. So broadband is massively important, and rural communities should have the same access as urban ones.
I will focus my remarks on Project Gigabit and its pros and cons and on some of the issues we are dealing with in Westmorland and elsewhere in Cumbria. Project Gigabit seeks to ensure that there is wider broadband access for difficult-to-reach communities. It will achieve that to some degree—it is important to put that on the record and to be positive about the good that the project is doing and will do—but it will not do so entirely. The communities that get missed are the kind that I represent in Westmorland.
Many of those homes, businesses and community buildings will remain without a connection, despite Project Gigabit. The procurement area in Cumbria contains roughly 60,800 properties that are in need of connection. Roughly 59,000 are estimated to be in scope of the procurement contract, which means 97% will be connected if all goes to plan. That is not to be sniffed at. That is good news. For all those properties that will be connected, it will make a significant difference to them and to the families and businesses that operate within them.
That leaves 1,800 premises in the procurement area that Project Gigabit recognises as needing connection, but for which no solution currently exists. My criticism of the Government’s approach is that, by giving the contract to a large corporation—in our case Fibrus, which is a capable outfit, run by very nice and competent people—they have marginalised communities and premises that would benefit from a more community-based, agile and bespoke operation that could mean that the 1,800 properties got connected.
It so happens that we have one such operation in Cumbria. I am sure the Minister is aware of B4RN—Broadband for the Rural North. We are incredibly proud of its work and its track record. It is a community benefit society. In the past few years, it has worked with some of the hardest-to-reach rural communities in Cumbria and north Lancashire, especially South Lakeland, to deliver full-fibre gigabit internet to thousands of homes, businesses and community buildings. That work has been an important part of Project Gigabit and, indeed, of the Government’s levelling-up agenda. It has been supported by Government’s voucher scheme. The disappointing thing for me and so many of us in Cumbria is that, over the past year, the Government have greatly reduced access to the gigabit voucher scheme, which has had the—I assume unintended—effect of stifling B4RN’s progress in connecting our rural communities, at the very moment when we should encourage it to move further and faster.
Will the Minister state whether it is the Government’s policy to move funding from successful community organisations such as B4RN, which connect every property in their area, to procurement that does not connect every property and is delivered through large, profit-driven corporations? Or, preferably, will he commit to working with organisations such as B4RN right now, and not defer the decision for a year or two to see how things go, to find ways of enabling it to continue its delivery side by side with those larger procurements? Is he willing to meet me and representatives of B4RN and some of the affected communities, which B4RN would otherwise be connecting, so that we can have the clarification that our rural communities in Eden and South Lakeland need?
I want to be clear: I am not saying that Project Gigabit procurements are bad; quite the opposite. However, the Government and BDUK seem to be taking a blanket, one-size-fits-all approach that will harm many rural communities in Eden in South Lakeland. A better solution, if we are to ensure that communities are connected comprehensively and at pace, would be to allow the large procurement under Project Gigabit to deliver alongside community schemes such as B4RN.
Sadly, B4RN is currently being managed out of the area, despite the transformative connections it has already achieved. Its track record is second to none. Communities including parts of Sedbergh, Kaber, Murton, Long Marton, Winton, Warcop, Ormside, Hilton, Hartley and Bleatarn are being forced to wait longer for their connection and will have poorer, less comprehensive coverage because the Government and BDUK are not following the more intelligent twin-track approach that would have allowed B4RN to provide some of the solutions.
We heard about telegraph poles, which are a significant issue. B4RN is a community-run organisation and it can build a fully underground network. It can do that because it is a voluntary organisation and landowners allow it on to their land to dig the trenches. I have been there myself. In Old Hutton, I was digging the trenches—not laying the cable; they would not allow me to do that. Getting dirty and digging holes is just about within my field of competence. However, those landowners will not allow access to their land for free to a commercial, multibillion-pound organisation. Consequently, there is the Fibrus operation and Project Gigabit, whereby large parts of the procurement would use telegraph poles. As Storm Arwen proved, telegraph poles are vulnerable to extreme weather events, which happen often in Cumbria. We are used to weather in the wild, and sadly, with climate change, we expect it to get worse and more intense.
In the interests of having greater resilience in the network, more and better access to broadband in every part of our rural county and supporting community groups that already know what they are doing, I ask the Minister and BDUK to re-examine their approach so that B4RN can meet the needs of communities that Project Gigabit will leave connected only partially or not at all. Rural communities often feel ignored and taken for granted by this Government. This is an opportunity for the Minister to listen and put that right.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on securing the debate and making such an impressive introductory speech. Indeed, I agree with all his points, so I will try to keep my remarks brief.
As with other Members—especially those who represent rural areas—the need for better broadband is something that fills my inbox almost weekly. As the hon. Member put it, broadband and digital connectivity have become the fourth utility, so it is no surprise that in my constituency, where 14% of premises can receive speeds of only up to 10 megabits per second, a lot of people are concerned about improving their digital connectivity, given the demands of education, businesses and leisure. Sadly, in Ceredigion the percentage of premises that cannot receive what Ofcom describes as decent broadband is 2.2%, compared with the UK figure of 0.2%.
As others have, I place on record my belief that there has been great progress in recent years in improving broadband infrastructure, in Ceredigion as well as in other parts of the United Kingdom, but there is more that we should do. As others have mentioned, the Government could make changes to the gigabit voucher scheme and Project Gigabit to accelerate progress. One concern among my constituents in communities that do not have decent broadband—certainly not gigabit broadband—is that they will have to wait several more years before any progress is made with their communities.
Knowing my hon. Friend’s constituency, I am sure he will recognise the problem faced by the small community in Nantmor and Beddgelert in my constituency, where there is no mobile signal—an EE Home Office mast is in place, but it is not turned on—and a history of electricity outages, not over hours but over days. Analogue copper lines were switched off earlier this year, and the community is now awaiting a decision on whether the exchange will be eligible for a fibre community partnership. This is a real challenge—a real crisis—for many of our communities, and they have nowhere else to turn.
I thank my right hon. Friend for that important point. In the 21st century, it is rather strange to stand here and talk about communities in the United Kingdom that are completely cut off from the outside world, especially during severe weather events. She mentioned a community around Beddgelert. I also have communities, such as Cwmystwyth, that have been told that, as soon as the copper landline network is switched off, they will have to depend on a broadband connection. Sadly, Cwmystwyth does not have one, and it does not have mobile signal, so it is left without any form of communication in the event of a storm.
As has been pointed out already, adequate and improved broadband infrastructure in rural areas can make a significant contribution to the community in not just a social but an economic sense. This afternoon, I received an email from a constituent who explained that she works for a company—a charity, as it happens—that is based and does work across the UK. She very much wants to stay in Ceredigion to continue that work, but she depends on a decent broadband connection. Sadly, where she lives is unlikely to receive an upgrade any time soon.
The last census showed that the population of Ceredigion constituency had dropped by 5.9%. We will not get into the technical detail of why that happened, but we know from covid in particular that a number of people who were doing hybrid working decided to relocate to Ceredigion. So rolling out good connectivity across the county would make a massive demographic contribution. It is probably worth emphasising that it would also make a contribution to the delivery of public services, getting staff into our schools, care homes and other important public services, which is something we already struggle with.
One thing I would like to emphasise is the good work that the Government have done to date on the gigabit voucher scheme. Ceredigion is very fortunate in being one of the pilot areas. I have tried to gauge the demand from communities to sign up to the vouchers, and I am pleased to say that communities in Ceredigion responded very positively—I believe it is one of the best areas in terms of the number of declarations of interest. Since then, community co-ordinators have gone to considerable effort to ensure that communities are aware of the different options and that they register their interest and their vouchers, and some communities have succeeded. Some communities in Ceredigion have had their broadband connections improved considerably, and it has made a fantastic difference.
However, as the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) mentioned, others have found themselves caught in a bit of a limbo in recent months, because the voucher funding does not seem to be forthcoming from BDUK. It is possible that that has to do with work the Government are doing with Project Gigabit in mapping out the intervention areas, and I would be grateful if the Minister could clarify that.
Nevertheless, some of the community co-ordinators and those participating in the schemes are growing restless. In Wales, they have seen the best part of a decade of promises of improved connectivity that have come to nothing, so it is inevitable that people start to question whether the schemes will actually work for them. I fear that a lot of the demand and interest will dissipate the longer we go without any real progress. Will the Minister clarify whether the Government intend to accelerate some of the voucher schemes in the interim as we wait for the Project Gigabit areas to take off? It strikes me that, where community areas have engaged with each other, organised and registered an interest, we might as well get on with connecting them. Even if that means that it is only a couple of hundred or 1,000 premises in Ceredigion, it is better than nothing.
That brings me to Project Gigabit and the intervention areas. Although I very much welcome the fact that the Government are investing so much money in that endeavour, I have a concern about part of Ceredigion—sadly, we have been split in two in this process; the north is in a type C procurement contract, and it remains to be seen what the south-west Wales lot will look like. The point I want to raise with the Minister and seek his assurances on is that we will not drag our feet in making a decision, as opposed to the south-west Wales lot. I have already heard rumours that a decision might not be made until summer 2024. I am told by industry officials that, once contracts have been awarded, there will be a good six months of scoping, surveys and all the preparatory work and that, depending on where people are, it could then be two or three years before the connection is sorted. That concerns me because many of these communities will be in rural areas that do not have a mobile signal. They have no alternative methods of connectivity, and that is holding them back.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Dwyfor Meirionnydd (Liz Saville Roberts) mentioned, many of the hardest-to-reach properties lack any other form of communication. There needs to be greater co-ordination and prioritisation of the effort to connect the hardest-to-reach areas. By co-ordination I mean that we should think about the areas that lack a mobile signal, full fibre or broadband of any description and ensure that the digital switchover of landlines is paused. I know that that will entail work with BT and Ofcom, but that co-ordination is essential if we are to ensure that communities are not cut off.
In terms of prioritisation, I can foresee a situation with the Project Gigabit and intervention area approach whereby residents who currently enjoy superfast broadband download speeds of 17 megabits per second will be connected to full gigabit, which is great—fantastic. At the same time, constituents who currently lack any broadband whatever will still be left waiting. Will the Minister assure me that there will be some prioritisation and that premises that currently receive decent broadband are perhaps second in line to those that lack anything at all?
Broadband can no longer be regarded as a luxury and simply an add-on for those who want it. It has become an integral and essential facility for modern-day living. People are now expected to be able to join a meeting online or carry out a transaction online. Transactions with Government Departments and banks, and for paying bills or booking appointments, are increasingly easier to carry out online, but only if we have access to decent broadband.
The alternatives are becoming increasingly difficult, as anyone who has spent hours queuing on a phone call will know—a situation further compounded by the closure of face-to-face facilities in rural banks, post offices and shops, for example. There are often economic incentives for people to go online, as they will be charged less. For anyone trying to run a farm or business in a rural area, access to high-quality broadband is essential to complete all the necessary paperwork, record keeping, communication and transactions.
Broadband is an essential part of levelling up and offering people living in rural areas a broader range of opportunities, for example in education. It can be difficult for a small rural school or college to offer subjects that are less in demand, such as modern foreign languages or music. The use of online classrooms can ensure that students can access a wider range of subjects.
In the past, we might have seen people who were well established in their business or profession coming to live in or returning to rural areas, but now people can start out online, setting up a small business or working remotely. All of that can happen only if they have access to high-quality broadband. In rural areas, particularly those that are more difficult to farm, we often bemoan the outward migration of our young people and worry that no one will be left to run the farm and take care of the countryside, but the truth is that to make a reasonable living, farming families often have to diversify. Without good broadband, their options are limited. How can they run a business or advertise a tourist facility competitively without good broadband?
Broadband is clearly a responsibility for the UK Government, working with the telecommunications industry and Ofcom. It should be a top priority for the Government, because for a relatively small investment it can contribute so much to levelling up and bringing opportunities to our rural areas, where they can be so limited. It matters more to have good broadband in rural areas, as there are fewer face-to-face opportunities than in urban areas, and transport costs are very high. Yes, it does cost more when there is difficult geography and there are not the economies of scale that there are in areas where large numbers of users are concentrated in one place.
It is like the Royal Mail’s universal service delivery or the electricity supply: it should reach everyone. We should accept the principle of cross-subsidy, so that areas where it is more economic to roll out can subsidise those areas where it is more expensive. We should not say that it costs too much in rural areas so we will leave them until last or leave them out altogether. Let us make no mistake about this. I have heard providers who have received Government money to roll out broadband say that they have concentrated on the easy-to-supply areas.
Broadband is not devolved in Wales, but, seeing the desperate need for improved broadband, the Welsh Government have invested in broadband, more than doubling the availability of fast broadband across Wales through the Superfast Cymru programme and repeatedly stepping in to improve digital connectivity, using funding from the EU and other sources. The Welsh Government have, in the past, provided additional funding for the gigabit voucher scheme, but year-on-year budget cuts have meant that since March 2022 they have no longer been able to.
In August last year, the Senedd’s Climate Change, Environment and Infrastructure Committee warned that people in Wales are being left behind, with sub-par, unreliable broadband that risks excluding people from modern life, and with rural areas being particularly affected. The UK Government’s Project Gigabit is supposed to address that, but Wales’s mountainous terrain is challenging. The worry is that UK funding does not reflect the real cost of roll-out in those areas.
When Labour was in power at UK level, the Labour Government delivered infrastructure competition in first-generation broadband, but since the Conservatives came to power, broadband and 5G roll-out seem to have been woefully slow. The Government have repeatedly rolled back on their commitment to broadband roll-out. Originally, we were promised full fibre for all by 2025. That has now been downgraded to a commitment to at least 85% of UK premises having access to gigabit broadband by 2025. We can be sure that the remaining 15% will include many rural areas.
The Government are saying that it will be 2030 before there will be nationwide—that is, 99%-plus—coverage. That is another seven years. How many businesses will have gone bust and how many young people will have left rural Wales in that time? Will the Minister confirm whether the Government are on track to reach 85% of UK premises with gigabit broadband by 2025 and whether that will include 85% of residents in Wales? Rather than just saying “99% by 2030”, will the Minister be negotiating interim targets from 2025 to 2030, and will he ensure that the interim targets are fairly spread across the UK so that Wales keeps up percentage-wise with the rest? On that note, I conclude my remarks.
Diolch, Sir Christopher; it is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship. I apologise for not giving you advance warning of my wish to speak, but I am glad to have caught your eye.
I congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on securing this debate and on his informative comments. He makes impressive contributions in this place and is always a pleasure to listen to. On a personal note, I congratulate him on his recent marriage. I was delighted to hear the news through the wonderful world of Facebook during the summer recess. I also welcome the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant) back to the Labour Front Bench with responsibility for these matters.
I want briefly to raise two points. The first is good news about the success in increasing the roll-out of full-fibre coverage across the UK, Wales and, indeed, Carmarthenshire. I understand that about half of all homes in Carmarthenshire now have the potential to access full fibre. However, the issue is that take-up is not particularly good. Around 30% of homes that could receive full fibre are still on superfast. I put my hand up; I am one of those people, in Penygroes in the Gwendraeth valley. I wonder whether there is a push by the UK Government to encourage take-up. Is that a matter for the UK Government, for Openreach as the company with the infrastructure, or for the service providers? What can be done to increase uptake? Otherwise, it is a huge waste of investment and public funds.
The point I really want to make, however, is one that has been raised in my constituency following the collapse of Broadway Partners. Two communities in my constituency were endeavouring to get Broadway projects completed, but they were not completed in either case. The company has gone into administration. I think it is the first time an alternative provider has gone into administration, so it is a test case for us all. People on the ground and co-ordinators working with the company put in a huge amount of effort on these projects, and there is a huge risk of all their work going down the drain. Obviously that is demotivating for everybody involved. They are quite rightly asking me, as their Member of Parliament, what is happening and what can be done to resolve the situation.
From my discussions with the administrators, I was under the impression that the aim was to complete the process by the beginning of August, but my understanding is that it has yet to be completed. We obviously want to see the business sold as a going concern; that would probably be the easiest way for the situation to develop, but I have heard no news officially about whether it is likely. I wonder whether the Minister has had any discussions with BDUK or the administrators and whether he can inform us what is happening with the administration process.
The primary concern of the co-ordinators in my constituency is about what is happening to the vouchers that they were hoping to mobilise. Are they under the ownership of Broadway and therefore part of the administration process, or are they still under the ownership of BDUK? My understanding—I would be grateful if the Minister confirmed this one way or the other—is that the vouchers are not utilised until the broadband provision goes live. That should mean that they are with BDUK, which might offer some reassurance to my constituents.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) mentioned that he has a similar problem in his constituency. What really concerns everybody is that if the business is not sold as a going concern one way or another, the properties will fall into the new super-bid that has been created for our part of the world. As the hon. Member outlined, that is not likely to be signed off until the spring, and it could then take two or three years to be delivered. That means that people who were on the verge of finally getting broadband in very rural parts of west Wales are now facing a potential wait of many years.
There is a potential solution: satellite and mobile technology. The big issue with satellite technology is that the costs are prohibitive—not only the capital costs of the infrastructure, but the revenue costs. The monthly cost of satellite packages is far more expensive than conventional broadband packages. Constituents have asked me why the UK Government do not come up with a scheme for the cohort of people who are on the verge of achieving broadband via Broadway, which has a scheme that offsets the extra costs that they would face if they went down the satellite road. That would enable them to achieve far better internet provision very quickly, rather than—as we may well fear—facing a wait of many years.
I congratulate my friend and colleague, my hon. Friend the Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith), on securing the debate.
One of the first areas of improvement that I identified for my constituency of Inverclyde when I was first elected in 2015 was broadband speed and resilience. Today, after many discussions, the occasional confrontation and a lot of repetition, Inverclyde is well served. We now enjoy an average download speed of 133.4 megabits per second, with 96.7% superfast availability, and 85.7% are receiving over 30 megabits per second. Although these numbers are among the best in the UK, I acknowledge that that is not the experience of everyone in Inverclyde. If you are my constituent, and you are one of those that are still not getting a suitable service, I accept that you will be frustrated and angered by the service you are getting. Believe me when I say that I am working on it.
It is important that I do. We live in an instant society, in which we have become used to instant access to entertainment, data, food, travel and a litany of things that were once planned for, looked forward to and experienced at our leisure. We now consume at the quickest possible rate, and the thought of having to wait is deemed unacceptable. I may sound like some curmudgeon, but in truth I am as frustrated as everyone else.
During my 35 years of working in IT, I saw a lot of change. The industry was gearing up when I first joined it, and it was moving at a much faster rate when I left. It now operates at breakneck speed. Changes to technology are being developed and implemented at a far greater rate of knots than we have ever experienced before. The speeds and volumes of data that we accept as normal were once a thing of dreams. We used to squeeze out every last bit of processing power, and then technology ran ahead of us and became cheaper, physically smaller and far more capable. But we were limited by our own imagination regarding what we were going to do with all these new telecoms capabilities. Initially, it was focused on industry and the work environment, and then there was the advent of desktop computers, laptops, iPods, gaming, the internet and online shopping.
The marketplace for digital inclusion and the requirements therein changed. Back in the day, Governments counted the number of households with clean water, as that was seen as a duty and a right. It was deemed important that not just the rich had access. Clean drinking water was required to eradicate cholera and the wider society benefited. The mission was clear, and the fundamentals have not really changed. Electricity and gas connections over time became more the norm than the exception, but where the vast majority of people enjoyed reliable access, the more rural areas were left behind and had to become more self-reliant regarding clean water and energy. That remains true to this day, and it now includes broadband.
We cannot allow that to continue. The legislation has to take into consideration the provision for areas that are harder to reach and not economically viable. Currently, the UK Government have estimated that 0.3% of properties are too expensive to reach. I accept that running a fibre cable to some very rural areas is not the solution, but alternatives exist and funding them must be considered. Simply saying it is too hard or too expensive is not good enough.
When it comes to future-proofing the infrastructure, we must acknowledge that we will never consume less than we currently use. The demand will continue to grow, and the shape and form of our engagement with it will change. The more bandwidth we create, the more uses we will find for it. It is clear that we need to be ambitious beyond our current or even projected requirements. Just as we now expect water, sewerage and power, we must add connectivity to that list.
I caution my fellow Members and those running Project Gigabit and the R100 scheme in Scotland that at some point we will require 1 terabyte per second. That is 1,024 gigabytes. I cannot say at present what for, but with quantum computing and the human imagination, I am sure that some day somebody will, and we must be designing and building the digital infrastructure that supports that growth. It is the responsibility of UK Government to manage, fund and co-ordinate the solution. Otherwise, we shall be standing still while the demand accelerates over the horizon.
Finally, as always, as a Scottish nationalist I look at situations and ask myself, “Could Scotland do this better if it were independent?” When I look at the Faroe Islands, which have some of the best broadband in the world, along with Norway, I am inclined to think that we could do better if telecoms were a devolved area. Some day, as a normal independent nation, we shall get the opportunity to prove that. I just hope it is before we are measuring success in terabytes per second.
Thank you, Sir Christopher. It is a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, though I merely point out that Sir Christophers are two a penny these days. You have said in the Chamber that I like the sound of my voice too much—I see the Minister is agreeing—so I will try to limit my remarks as much as I can.
It is a great delight to be here. I warmly congratulate the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) on his marriage and on securing the debate, not least because it matters to a much larger number of Members than are able to be here this afternoon. I think very fondly of Stirling. I was partly schooled in Stirling—well, the school was entirely in Stirling; whether I was fully schooled is another matter. I remember standing at the beheading stone, looking down over the Raploch and seeing some of the issues that I thought most needed addressing in the whole of British society.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right about rural and semi-rural areas, because the category of semi-rural is complicated and difficult. In the Rhondda, which hon. Members are all very welcome to visit, it feels very congested, but it is semi-rural, because everybody lives within 1 mile of a farm—hence “How Green Was My Valley” and all the rest of it. That provides real difficulties, as do the valleys’ contours, for mobile telephony and broadband connectivity. The hon. Gentleman rightly made the point that often this is far too complicated. It is not just complex; it has been complicated by lots of different players in the market not being able to work together.
It was great to hear from the hon. Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond), who is the sole English Conservative MP here today. I know that she is a very fine swimmer, because she swam in the parliamentary swimming team with me. She was right to raise not only the issue of GP appointments—when we can get them at all—but that of banks closing. When Lloyds closes in Tonypandy next year, there will not be a single bank in the Rhondda. That is a major problem for lots of businesses and lots of individuals. Sometimes it is necessary to go to a bank physically, and at the moment that means effectively going to Cardiff, which could be a very long bus ride from many areas, if there is ever a bus to get on. She makes a good point. She also referred to the points that Age UK has made about the problems for older citizens. I think she mentioned the over-60s. Since I am in that category, I was a bit troubled, but maybe I misheard because I do not have my hearing aids in.
It was great to hear from my very friendly hon. Friend the Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy). I knew all about the white telephone boxes, although if there is a telephone box left anywhere it is a miracle these days. She is right about the lack of competition, and sometimes when competition arrives there is so little co-ordination that people end up with roads being dug up endlessly all over the place. People ask, “Well, couldn’t somebody have just spoken to someone before they started digging it up again?” The roads end up looking like a bizarre patchwork. We have exactly the same problem with the Rhondda—Members will have noticed that this is all about the Rhonda—being dug up, and Rhondda Cynon Taf Council is tearing its hair out. The moment it has done a road and resurfaced it, suddenly some broadband operator wants to dig it up all over again.
The hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron) talked about weather in the wild—we certainly know all about that—and the need for greater resilience. Often people who make decisions for cities simply do not understand the kind of issues that might be faced in a rural or semi-rural area. In valley communities, what happens on the top of the mountain ends up affecting everybody at the bottom of the valley pretty quickly.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake)—it is great that this debate has been so Welsh-heavy; there has been a great deal of Welsh hwyl, and if we put this much effort into the World cup, I am sure we will triumph—is right about hybrid working and the fact that many people are now choosing to work in a different way. Many of the communities we are talking about are ideal for hybrid working, because the quality of life—leaving out the issue of broadband—is superb. We should want to re-energise those communities. We would be adding genuine value. The hon. Gentleman is also right about the public sector and the need for co-ordination. A large number of public services now rely completely on constituents being able to access broadband. If someone sets up a business and gets to the £85,000 threshold for VAT, they have to submit a digital return, and the aim is to get to that system for all of taxation. Encouraging people to set up new businesses is not very effective if they have to sit there and watch a page buffer for an hour and a half.
My hon. Friend the Member for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) also spoke of paperwork, and she is right to say that farmers need good broadband. Very few farms, especially hill farms and farms in these kinds of areas, are able to survive unless they diversify in some shape or form. They could diversify into what they call in Italy an agriturismo business, and we maybe need a defined category for that with the proper support, but without broadband it would be very difficult for farmers to do that, let alone access and submit all the required forms. My hon. Friend was also right about interim targets, and I hope the Minister will respond to that point.
The hon. Member for Carmarthen East and Dinefwr (Jonathan Edwards)—we have not yet finished with Wales—is absolutely right to say that it is shocking that in significant areas in the country the sign-off looks like it will not be happening until 2024. Given that every time there has been a target, it has not been met, it may well not happen until the second or third quarter of 2024. That would mean that people would not get a decent rate of broadband service until 2027 or even 2028.
I used to work at the BBC many years ago. I did not exactly write “BBC Beyond 2000”, where we talked about a digicopoeia—someone else drafted it, and I rewrote it in English—but we have been talking about this for a very long time, and we still have not got there. Sometimes it is embarrassing to go to other countries, elsewhere in Europe or around the world, and find that the connectivity is swifter, better and easier than here in the UK.
Lots of hon. Members have made the point that broadband—and telephony as well; I make that point because Porth, where I live, has the worst telephony connection I know of in the country—is a vital service. It is vital for schools and the NHS. Whoever thought that they would have their MRI scan taken by somebody in a hospital in one part of the country and have it read by somebody else who is not necessarily even in the UK, as it might be read at a different time of night. That all relies on very serious broadband availability. The issue of banks has already been raised. I would also argue that if we are going to have serious public sector reform, and if we are to be able to use the advantages that might come from AI, we need significant broadband speeds as well. It is as vital as water, electricity and gas, as many hon. Members have said.
That is why it is depressing that Boris Johnson—I think we are still allowed to refer to him—said in 2019 that the target for full fibre to all was 2025. The target now is just that 85% of premises will have access to gigabit-capable broadband by 2025. That is 15% not getting anywhere near those speeds, while a significant number of other people will be relying on part cable and part fibre. That is nowhere near the target set just in 2019, at the beginning of this Parliament. In fact, as of January, only 72% of UK premises had a gigabit-capable broadband connection.
The situation in rural areas, as everybody has mentioned, is still very slow, and progress is slow too. Project Gigabit had money allocated for it in 2020, but no regional contract was awarded until last November—that is two and a half years wasted—and £3.8 billion, or roughly 75% of it, is still to be allocated. That is shocking, because it is about large chunks of our constituencies, and many other constituencies in the land, not having access to what we have all deemed to be a basic necessity. My first question to the Minister is, therefore, when will it all be allocated? Does he have a specific timetable? He is looking very inscrutable—he is doing his best inscrutable look now, which is his favourite look.
The private sector is responsible for 80% of those who are not classed as hard-to-reach, but many of whom have significant difficulties, negotiating wayleaves for instance. I thought that the regulations had been changed to make that easier, but that is notwithstanding the issues that one then has of lots of different people competing to place their cables in the same place. There are also difficulties for the private sector around accessing multi-dwelling units, and the private sector complains—already has complained; one of the first emails I had just today was about this—about chronic skilled-worker shortages.
I have a few questions for the Minister. First, what new barrier-busting mechanisms is the Department looking to introduce to help ease some of those problems? Could he provide an update on when flexi-permits will finally become available? Secondly, what work is the Department doing to foster a skilled telecoms workforce within the UK? Is there an update on whether telecoms engineers might be added to the shortage occupation list to ease the process of overseas recruitment? Thirdly, it is absolutely crucial to the roll-out that there is healthy competition within the industry. What is the Department doing to ensure that that competition is lively?
I have one other area that I will briefly speak about, which is affordability. I am very conscious, representing one of the poorest constituencies in the land, that if someone has to find £26 a month for a bill that, 15 or 20 years ago, they did not even think of as part of the utilities, that is a significant additional cost. I suspect that is why 4.3% of people in the Rhonda still receive less than 10 megabits per second—that is double the Welsh average but less than the United Kingdom’s—while our download speed is just 52.5 megabits per second, as opposed to 111.6 for the UK. That means that nearly all of the Rhonda—all of the wards—is in the worst 10% in the UK, and a lot of that is about affordability.
Citizens Advice have said that one million people have cancelled their broadband this year because of the cost of living crisis. That is an additional worry. Digital poverty, is, of course, a vicious circle. If someone has lost their job, they need to go online to search for jobs, or they might want to use the internet to be able to start up a new business, so it can become a vicious circle as someone becomes more and more isolated. That is why we believe that it is really important to introduce a proper affordability policy, which the Labour party intends to introduce if it enters government.
Our plan is to help prevent families being hit with a bombshell of broadband prices. First, we will reverse changes made by the Government in 2019 that allowed regulated wholesale prices to rise with inflation rather than costs. That will ensure that wholesalers and internet service providers do not get a windfall from sky-high inflation while families and firms struggle to pay their bills. Secondly, we will prompt Ofcom to investigate and take action to strengthen consumer protections, including taking action on mid-contract price rises, early termination costs for social tariff customers and loyalty penalties where long-term customers pay more than new customers.
Finally, we will ensure that there is an industry-wide social tariff for low-income families. Individual providers are already offering discounted packages, but Ofcom and Which? have branded them the “best-kept secret” in broadband. Labour will ensure that that secret comes to an end, prompting industry to work with Ofcom and consumer groups to develop a mandatory and well-advertised broadband social tariff for low-income families and promising to set and legislate for one in Government if they do not.
It is a pleasure to serve under your chairmanship, Sir Christopher. I thank the hon. Member for Stirling (Alyn Smith) for obtaining the debate and setting the subject out in an extremely constructive fashion, which I think has been maintained throughout. I welcome the contributions from all Members present. As has been observed, we have been on a tour of the nations of the United Kingdom, although I must say that I miss the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who would normally be with us. As a result, we have not heard the voice of Northern Ireland, but we have covered the rest of the UK comprehensively.
A number of points were made in detail about the situation in the constituencies of hon. Members, and as much as I can I will respond to some of the points raised. I will make a few general comments to begin. I add my own congratulations to the hon. Member for Ceredigion (Ben Lake) on his recent wedding, and indeed to the hon. Member for Rhondda (Sir Chris Bryant)—although I am not quite sure that it is the same degree of congratulation—on shadowing me on the Opposition Front Bench. Nevertheless, my congratulations to him on his promotion.
As has been said throughout this debate, and as is certainly recognised by the Government, broadband is now an essential part of life. It will go on being so as more and more services are provided online. That does not mean to say that we must neglect those who do not have access—that still remains important. I will say a word about digital exclusion, which was mentioned, but broadband is an essential. The Government have set ambitious targets, and I agree with the observation of the hon. Member for Inverclyde (Ronnie Cowan) that the appetite for broadband speed will go on increasing. That is why the Government shifted from originally having a target of superfast roll-out, which is relatively modest compared with the gigabit ambition of 1,000 megabits per second. That is about futureproofing. It is about ensuring that as more and more technologies and services become available, the connection is already in place to allow people to take advantage of it and for the economy to grow as a result.
Project Gigabit, which has been the main focus of this debate, is a £5 billion investment to support nationwide gigabit-capable broadband. As has been mentioned, we have set a target of 85% coverage by 2025 and nationwide coverage by 2030. In response to the requests made by the hon. Members for Rhondda and for Llanelli (Dame Nia Griffith) for targets, we have set those two targets, but BDUK will respond in due course to the Public Accounts Committee in setting out a delivery programme, so there will be more detail on how we get there and how progress will be made. We have already made astonishing progress. Consider that in January 2019, gigabit coverage was 6%, and now—four years later—it is at 77%. That is an astonishing achievement. However, in a sense, the more we are successful in extending coverage, first, the more vocal are the complaints from the people who do not have it, which is perfectly understandable—
I will come on to say a word about the gigabit broadband voucher scheme. To some extent, the Project Gigabit procurements have taken over from it, but if the right hon. Lady has a specific question, perhaps she would let me have the details, and I will be happy to supply an answer.
As I said, the main thrust of achieving the extension of coverage has been through the commercial roll-out, which has resulted from the competition that we have encouraged. Over 100 providers are now investing over £40 billion to roll out gigabit-capable broadband. We continue to believe that an active, competitive market—I will say a word about Broadway in a second—delivers the best results for consumers.
There will always be areas of the country where commercial roll-out is not viable, and it is in the first instance to address those elements that Project Gigabit was established. It includes local procurements, regional and cross-regional procurements, and the gigabit broadband voucher scheme. A large number of companies are now involved, and we are signing procurement contracts regularly. We have so far awarded 12 Project Gigabit contracts to improve digital connectivity in Cornwall, Cumbria, Norfolk, Suffolk, Hampshire and Northumberland, and we have a further 24 local and regional procurements under way. I was delighted a few weeks ago to visit Orford in Suffolk, where £100 million is being spent under Project Gigabit to extend coverage to another 80,000 premises. In Norfolk, £114 million is being spent to extend coverage to 62,000 premises. That is being mirrored across the country. As I said earlier, however, we are conscious that that will still leave some people outside the scope of those procurement packages, and they will obviously continue to press for coverage to be extended to them. As we extend coverage, the remaining premises will be, almost by definition, in harder-to-reach areas, so reaching them may require more innovative and inventive solutions, but the 100% target is a real target and we are confident that it can be achieved.
I want to say a little about Scotland, because the debate was obtained by the hon. Member for Stirling. As he will know, 71% of premises in Scotland can now access a gigabit connection, and 96% can access a superfast connection of 30 megabits per second. I am pleased to tell him that 93% of premises in his constituency now have access to superfast speeds, and 56% can access a gigabit-capable connection, which I think is a little higher than the figure that he quoted from the House of Commons Library. The figure I have been given is 56%, which I hope is correct and perhaps a little more up to date—demonstrating that we are extending the degree of coverage by the day. Considering that in January 2019 the figure for his constituency was 1%, I hope he will recognise that that is a significant achievement.
We are working closely with the Scottish Government on the issue. I recently had a call with Scottish Government Minister Richard Lochhead to discuss the programme being conducted by the Scottish Government through the R100 initiative. R100 was perhaps ambitious, in that it set a target of 100% coverage by 2021. Obviously, that has not been achieved and some procurements still have to take place, but we are anxious to work along with the Scottish Government and the testing of the market for those procurement contracts is now under way. Stirling has also benefited from the gigabit voucher scheme, with 120,000 vouchers issued so far under the scheme and its previous iterations.
Before the Minister’s speech concludes, will he address the specific problems we are facing in Hull? Can I push him again to agree to meet me and the other local MPs to discuss these issues in more detail, so that we can hopefully find a way to get Ofcom to take this problem more seriously?
I will come to the particular points that the hon. Lady raised and, indeed, points raised by other Members during the debate, so I am not trying to duck those at all.
Wales has featured strongly in the debate. As hon. Members from Wales will know, we are launching a cross-regional procurement, covering north-west Wales, mid-Wales and south-east Wales, and are looking to have a further procurement next summer for south-west Wales, and I will say a little bit more about that.
I turn to some of the specific contributions. My hon. Friend the Member for Meon Valley (Mrs Drummond) has been extremely persistent in making the case for her constituency. She will be aware—indeed, she referred to the fact—that a contract worth £104 million has been made with CityFibre, which will benefit around 76,000 premises in Hampshire, a number of which will be in the Meon Valley. I know she wants a date for when that will be achieved, but we have signed that contract, and I will ensure that BDUK continues to keep her updated with any progress. The signing of the contract is good news and hopefully her constituents will be able to benefit very soon.
My hon. Friend mentioned digital exclusion. As I said, I absolutely share her recognition of the importance of ensuring that people who may struggle to take advantage of digital technology are able to do so. We work with the Department for Education to ensure that essential digital skills for adults are made available through a number of different programmes and with the Department for Work and Pensions in supporting claimants with digital skills. She is absolutely right to press us on that point, and I will continue to keep in close touch with my colleagues in Government about that.
On the specific issue that the hon. Member for Kingston upon Hull West and Hessle (Emma Hardy) raised, competition is absolutely at the heart of the Government’s approach. We believe that it delivers for consumers, but I understand the frustration that she expresses. It is clearly not the intention that there should be three separate telegraph poles and cables alongside them, and we are conscious that the installation of such infrastructure is disruptive to people.
We have made it easier for operators to install equipment, but it is not the case that local communities no longer have any say. While individuals cannot impose conditions, local authorities can. They have to be notified of the intention to deploy infrastructure, and they can set conditions under which the operator has to comply when carrying out an installation. If those conditions are not complied with, the local authority needs to notify Ofcom, and Ofcom has the power to intervene. When it comes to the hon. Lady’s case in Hull, if operators are not abiding by the code of practice or the conditions that have been set, that is a matter that I would encourage her local authority or, indeed, the hon. Lady herself to take up with Ofcom because there are powers available.
Any conditions that are set do not appear to be mandatory—that is my understanding. This is the situation from both Hull City Council and East Riding of Yorkshire Council; my constituency covers both.
On the issue of Ofcom, I have to say that I have not found it at all effective in this area and I do not believe it is carrying out its full duties as a regulator in taking this matter seriously and taking action. I would welcome the Government getting behind this call to say to Ofcom that it needs to act and take the issue more seriously. I am so pleased that the Minister has agreed that it is simply unacceptable to have three different companies digging up the same street in the space of a year, putting their own poles in.
Ofcom has powers to intervene if conditions are not being properly complied with. If the hon. Lady is dissatisfied with Ofcom’s response, I encourage her to contact them directly and come back to me, by all means, if she finds Ofcom is not responding in the way she would like.
As for the cases raised by the hon. Member for Westmorland and Lonsdale (Tim Farron), we are very much aware of the situation regarding the B4RN offer but, as he will be aware, BDUK has just signed the Project Gigabit contract in Cumbria, which is worth £180 million. It will extend coverage to 59,000 more premises in Cumbria and 10,000 of those are in his constituency. That is a significant increase. Obviously, there will still be some still outside that, and I hear what he says about the B4RN offer. However, an agreement was never reached with B4RN over its proposals. We will continue to talk to the hon. Gentleman about any concerns and I share his wish to ensure that the premises outside the procurement contract that has been signed still have the prospect in due course of accessing Gigabit. I invite the hon. Gentleman to continue to talk to the Department and to Fibrus about that.
The hon. Member for Ceredigion rightly raised the procurement contract for south-west Wales and pressed us to not drag our feet—I think that was the expression he used. We have no intention of doing that, but BDUK will let him know as soon as a successful supplier has been identified and will ensure that he is kept up to date. He also raised an important point about the public switched telephone network. I can assure him that nobody will have their existing connection cut off if they do not have access to broadband. I am very conscious of that.
The hon. Member for Llanelli made the point, which I think I have already covered, about setting out a timetable and targets. I agreed with a lot of what she said about the importance of ensuring that there is universal coverage and about the indispensability of broadband.
I want to come back on the point about affordability, which I am glad the hon. Member for Rhondda raised because it is important. We recognise that for some people broadband is an essential of life but nevertheless a significant cost to their budget. That is why we have been keen to get the agreement of all the operators to put in place social tariffs, which are now available for 99% of consumers. The challenge has been that take-up has not been anything like what we would like to see, with something like 200,000 out of a possible 4 million consumers taking advantage of social tariffs. I had a meeting this morning with colleagues at the Department for Work and Pensions to discuss how we could ensure that all consumers are aware. We are also talking to the operators about ensuring they publicise it as well. All I can say to those on low incomes who are worried about the cost is that they do not need to wait for a Labour Government, if one should ever appear, because this Government are taking the issue up and tackling it now.
Thank you for the opportunity, Sir Christopher, and I thank the hon. Member for Stirling. It has been a very valuable debate.
I am conscious of time so I will not mention anyone individually, but I thank all hon. Members for their contributions and also for their kind words personally. I am not against all unions; I am in favour of some of them—one being my wedding earlier in the summer. I should also mention that the Stirling beheading stone is a historic item; it is not actually used for that practice anymore, although I suspect it might be if I do not deliver better broadband for a lot of my constituents.
I am grateful for the Minister’s comments. I will follow up, if I may. I was particularly struck at the progress made in Stirling. We may have slightly different numbers, but from 1% in 2019, the year of my election, to the progress that we have now—